Cookbooks/Books on Food


Michael Pollan uncovered a gem of a url on twitter, a nice article on the chain Trader Joe’s.

Kindle notes:

From the 21st Century Principal, 7 suggested Kindle apps.

Don’t know what a Blackberry microUSB charger would do plugged into a Kindle? This article by Voltaic Solutions will give you a really good guess. Voltaic is focused on solar solutions, but since one of the solar solutions is only supplying 600mA (BB chargers tend to give 700-750mA), you can now estimate. It’s the best article on Kindle charging I’ve found so far.

If you’re like me, you’ll find that you pick up free cookbooks of various kinds. I have a Mexican cookbook, a Belgian cookbook, and an Scottish-Irish cookbook, all acquired at no cost. I also received Mark Miller’s “Tacos” for Christmas, “The Japanese Grill” by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat, and a Mark Bittman book, “Kitchen Express”.

Quick notes about the books: Mark Miller does very detailed work when he writes, and the book’s lovely photos are better seen in print. I’d honestly prefer his book on chili peppers in a Kindle version, but that hasn’t been converted yet. “Tacos” has, along with the taco recipes, about a dozen salsas, so it’s a nice complement to his salsa book.  One of  these days I have to try his lamb tacos, whose photo is true food porn.

I like the Japanese grill book so far, though it has a prose style stolen from late night Ron Popeil ads. It reads way too much like ad copy, which is a shame, because the information in the book so far has been interesting. Mark Bittman’s book focuses on simple fast recipes, and is a working collection of formulas, more or less, as opposed to recipes you must follow to the letter. He’s encouraging improvisation here.

The "kill a tree" versions of Mark Miller's books are also highly recommended.

Also to note,  I have Malika Harrichan’s “Food Lovers’ Guide to Atlanta” in a Kindle edition. It’s well suited to the Kindle, a fast easy read. I went end to end with it in about 3-4 hours. You also don’t have to worry about your copy disappearing when you’re actually on the road.

A Kindle “must” for the food blogger has to be Jennifer 8 Lee’s Fortune Cookie Chronicles. Because the “kill a tree” version is easily lent, keeping a virtual copy around means you don’t have to grub for it when looking up  references for blog  articles.

The original impetus for my Kindle purchase was the absence of lockable space at a new work location, but since, it has acquired more than just work related texts.  NeoCal Light, a free calculator, can do volume and weight unit conversions (i.e. tablespoons to cups). Mapquest can locate your position to within a block using the local wifi hotspots as landmarks.

Free wifi is almost everywhere. Most yogurt shops have it, IHOP has it usually, AT&T stores have free wifi, and McDonalds uses the same format as the AT&T hot spots (i.e. log into one, and you’ll log into all of them). Roughly half the eateries I’ve been to have free wifi (some that don’t  — their staff can’t figure out how to get it to work properly). Even the Kroger at Five Forks and Oak Road has free wifi.  Chains tend to have it more often than do “one off” eateries.

Chinese in out of the way places.

Every small town this holiday season we passed through had a buffet, even in rot gut East Texas towns whose residents couldn’t pronounce Szechuan if they were paid to do so. I suspect the buffet style is now being taught in New York City to Chinese immigrants — that is, if the whole format hasn’t migrated back to Fujian province, the land where  your Chinese waiter likely came from.

I have a wife who is half Japanese, and a mother-in-law who comes from a small fishing village on the coast of Kagoshima Prefecture on the island of Kyushu. My mother-in-law is from peasant stock, and hardly interested in pretending to be a urbane sophisticate. My interest in Japanese food is part a product of personal fascination with things Japanese, but also partly practical. I have to feed my in laws. And to that end, the Doraville roll just doesn’t cut it.

For those of us who lack Japanese blood, Japanese rearing, a year in Japan as an English teacher, or perhaps some time as an izakaya chef, there is one reference you should get your hands on beyond all others. I say this, not as someone who has read extensively about these issues, but as a scholar, who has an advanced degree from a good university, and thus has had to become a world class expert on a topic at least once in my life. I’m claiming some skill in learning, and some ability to recognize a great book when I see one.

Shizuo Tsuji's masterpiece is a must read for food bloggers and aspiring food critics.

Shizuo Tsuji’s tour de force cookbook and thorough blow-by-blow discussion of the Japanese meal, “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art” is a must read. Either you have read it, you have acquired what he knows through personal experience, or you simply don’t know what you’re talking about when it comes to the Japanese meal.

To show what  this book can do for the food blogger and food critic, we’ll start with some common misconceptions.

Misconception 1: A Japanese meal begins with miso soup, salad and rice. It continues with an entrée, and ends with a sweet dessert.

Uhm, no. A traditional Japanese meal ends with things like miso soup and rice. In fact a traditional meal might be little more than rice and pickles (tsukemono).

The basic components of a Japanese meal.

The four course Japanese meal starts with clear soup or sashimi, proceeds to grilled, steamed, simmered, or deep dried food, perhaps includes a salad, and ends with rice, miso soup, pickles, tea and perhaps fruit. And in this  vein, the first part of Tsuji’s book, the part that talks about technique, lore, ingredients, the part less focused on just the recipes, is laid out in the order of the Japanese meal.

Misconception 2: Sushi is the highlight of the traditional Japanese meal.

Sashimi highlights a Japanese meal, especially if you are a guest.

No. High quality sashimi is what an ordinary Japanese family would give to a guest to show them respect. Preparing most sushi requires special skills, skills the average housewife does not have. To think that sushi is common food is to reduce the whole  of Japan to a nation of sushi chefs.

Misconception 3: Ramen is Japanese food.

The Japanese consider ramen noodles to be of Chinese origin.

The irony of this situation  is that everyone thinks ramen is Japanese except the Japanese themselves. Ramen, like yakisoba, is considered by the Japanese to be a Chinese import. It is, however, a popular import, much as sushi is a popular import in America.

Misconception 4: I have done a good job as a food critic by talking about a Japanese restaurant’s ramen and their sushi.

Sad to say, this makes about as much sense as discussing a hamburger joint’s French fries and shakes, as opposed to their burgers. But 90% of the criticism of Japanese restaurants in Atlanta can’t get past the ramen or the sushi. Although a place with great French fries and great drinks is worth noting – maybe you  go to the restaurant just for those –  it doesn’t capture the whole of the eating experience.

Misconception 5: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of its ramen.

See Misconception 3 above, and think about it a while. Yes, I’ve seen Atlanta food bloggers try this one out as well.

Misconception 6: I can determine the authenticity of a Japanese restaurant by the quality of  its tuna sushi.

This isn’t strictly from Shizuo Tsuji’s book, but it’s an issue worth mentioning. I’ve seen Atlanta bloggers go down the path of complaining about  the tuna sushi in Japanese restaurants, and holding it a against  the establishment. And to be plain, a good chunk of deep red bluefin nigiri was my first love in nigiri-zushi. But bluefin is a currently a step away from being classed as an endangered species, and making any judgments on the basis of tuna is exceptionally crass.

Misconception 7: All Japanese restaurants have a sushi bar.

Only in America are we so in love with sushi that all Japanese restaurants have to have sushi bars. Americans are so in love with sushi that Thai restaurants have sushi bars, as do higher end grocery stores. As an example, it would be unthinkable  for an Atlanta izakaya to lack a sushi bar, but that’s by far the common state of affairs in Japan.

 There really is no restaurant I love more than an izakaya, and no matter how many trendy American restaurants like to put that on their website they never get it right.

Zack Davisson, in his review of Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook.

It’s a cookbook I’ve had for a while now, and one I’ve been meaning to write about, mostly  because it’s fun. A serious “this is how you prepare 18 course meals topped by those budget breaking bottles of wine?” Of course not. Is it a book a guy with a grill, a stove top, a decent beer, and a few utensils can take a shot at? Absolutely.

A fun cookbook, not just for guys (though it pretends to be).

The core of it are single item offerings (usually) by name chefs. Tom Colicchio does the intro.  Atlanta favorites are contributors. Ria Pell offers Fish and Grits on page 46. Linton Hopkins  offers roast chicken on page 136. Hugh Acheson does Bread n Butter Pickles on page 177. And a recipe akin to one my mother learned from a pregnant coworker from New Orleans  lives on page 173, shrimp boiled in beer. My mom once nearly ended up  in a brawl with a general’s wife who insisted her shrimp must have been flown in from the coast.

I miss my mother, and her shrimp boiled in beer. May she rest in peace.

Nope. But beer can kill that fishy whang off your frozen shrimp.

It’s a good cookbook for diabetics because most of what is cooked here can be eaten safely by diabetics. Not to put too fine a point to it, but diabetics should be living on meats (or cheeses), raw veggies, cooked (preferably grilled) veggies, and carefully managed bites of starches. This cookbook is a great way to add variety to the proteins a diabetic eats.

Highly recommended. If you like the idea of also getting Esquire magazine, the year’s subscription inside the book almost  pays for the cost of the book.

After digging a little more,  it turns out that Jennifer 8 Lee, of Fortune Cookie Chronicles fame, has a web site and the web site has a blog. At first glance, it’s much more fragmented a view than her far ranging book, but there are nuggets to be dug out of her posts. For one, she’s using Google ngrams to trace food trends through word usage, an idea that, when I saw it, struck me through as if an arrow had been driven through me.

Let’s take a quick look at a food fad. The one that first comes to mind is sushi. Did you know that in American English, the word “sushi” is now more common than the word “burger” or the words “apple pie”? Hey, I can show you that in a Google ngram. Switch the idiom of English you’re analyzing a bit,  to British English and you’ll see  different results. The chop suey fad disappears, for one, as does interest in food circa 2002-2003.

Interested in peppers? Checking out various pepper names shows a spike in interest in the word “tabasco” roughly about 1930. The word “jalapeno” takes off roughly about 1980, “habanero” about 1990. If you check out American and British English, you’ll see very different levels of interest, and a marked decline in interest among the British starting around the year 2000.

Obviously this kind of analysis isn’t restricted to foods. You can look at fabrics and plastics, or the effects electronic devices have on our language. That said, you can still compare “salsa” to “ketchup” and “granola” to the various Chinese foods that Jennifer Lee spoke about in such depth.

The book starts by examining the lottery: why was it that on March 30, 2005, there were so many lottery winners? When it began to emerge that the lotto winners had been betting the numbers on their fortune cookies, that sets the stage for Jennifer 8 Lee’s amazing book.

Certain books leave you euphoric, certain books strike you as profound. And while I didn’t get the same kind of intellectual high with “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” as I did with, say, “Godel, Escher, Bach” or “Guns, Germs, and Steel”, Jennifer 8 Lee’s book has an awful lot to say about what it is to be Chinese,  what is good Chinese, and the role and place of the vast array of hyphenated Chinese cuisines.

If you read nothing else, please read Chapter 14, the chapter titled “The Greatest Chinese Restaurant in the World.” In 40-someodd pages it encapsulates the food blogger’s dilemma. She’s really good about explaining each and every candidate restaurant, and then explaining her final choice. I would have picked differently, myself. It’s an interesting exercise trying to decide which one would have been your favorite.

Other than that it’s an education  in how Chinese restaurants work. It follows workers and families as they migrate from New York City to the rest of  the states, follows their troubles and pains. It talks about illegal immigration, and the regions of China most responsible for the girl who hands you your menus and cleans up your table.

The book talks evocatively about Chinese restaurants as spontaneous self-organizing networks, an open source food model as compared to the closed model of food chains, and also about the history of the fortune cookie, ending the search in 19th century Japan.

Yet, in the process, it remains light and breezy and accessible.

Verdict: a blogger must read. You don’t understand Chinese  critically – seriously, I don’t care how much of it you’ve personally cooked – as a cuisine until you read this thing.

Oh, yes, and afterwards, I just had to have Chinese. This is a lamb dish from the Chinese menu of Man Chun Hong.

I’m fond of the books that are part recipe, part  history. I really do want to know how something appeared, what created this or that recipe. I’m not as thrilled by the chemistry of it all; ironic given my university degree. But these two books tickle both my need for a good recipe and my need for the context of it all.

Robb Walsh is an excellent food historian. In this book he gives a simplified version of his Houston Press articles on Tex Mex and the fajita. In it there are useful charts of meats, some food experiments he tried that works (yes, in a Gene-Jon-Sean-Jimmy kind of way – ever try galbi fajitas?).  But if you’re like me, and write or seriously think about food, you buy what Robb Walsh writes because he cares enough to do his research and  get his story right. He doesn’t pull it out of thin air.

Colleen Taylor Sen’s book is lighter and breezier, a two to three hour read. But there are recipes that go back hundreds of years in this book, varieties of curries probably not easily made today. It covers a lot more of the earth than does Robb’s book, touching  usefully on things like Thai, Dutch and Japanese curries. But the best coverage is of the Indian recipes, what they are, where they come from. It talks about the origin of tandoori chicken, for example and has plenty of colorful photos.

Both recommended. I’d say that Robb’s book is a must read for anyone trying to critique Mexican restaurants in America.

Michael Pollan has a reputation. His food writing is popular, and it isn’t because he’s merely the flavor of the month. Take, for example, his 2008 tome, “In Defense of Food“.

It starts with some excellent prose. It’s hard not to cheer when paragraphs end with these kinds of conclusions.

Science has much to teach us about food, and perhaps someday scientists will “solve” the problem of diet, creating the nutritionally optimal pill in a meal, but for now and the foreseeable future, letting the scientists decide the menu would be a mistake. They simply do not know enough.

And it continues by stepping back from the lively arguments about nutrition and taking a “big picture” approach, one that eschews diving too deep in minutiae, and relies more on common sense.

In the beginning, however, it’s not so obvious he’s headed that way. For about 50 pages of the trade paperback, it looks more like Michael Pollan is channeling Gary Taubes and not doing a very good job of it. The arguments tend to be eerily similar to Taubes’ book “Good Calories, Bad Calories“. It’s only around page 59 that he begins to differentiate himself from Taubes’ more focused approach and hit the problem with a broader, but more accurate hammer.

Michael then spends a lot of time talking about the differences between what he called food, and foodlike substances. He spends an large amount of time talking about the effects of a food, and how all too often the entire benefit of the food is reduced to a single nutrient in the eyes of myopic scientists (he also bothers to explain why nutrition science is myopic and full of unintended effects). There are lively discussions of the benefits of butter from pastured cows, and how butter is better than garden variety margarine. He discusses a study of 10 diabetic Aborigines, and what happened to them when they returned to a “native-like” state.  Michael’s take on the virtues of green leafy vegetables are more deftly stated than most anywhere else.

It would be easy to write the whole book off, and transform the manifesto in the beginning to the phrase, “Eat like an old rich hippie.” Except, that’s not what he’s trying to do. It could also be restated as “Eat food you grow yourself”, though that’s only part of the suggestions he makes. He’s fond of people cooking their own food, of people buying from farmer’s markets, of the use of heirloom plants and animals. He suggests that people who take the time to eat a little slower, enjoy themselves a bit more, and pay for (or grow) more diverse and whole foodstuffs will end up living a healthier life in the end.

The first I’ve only glanced at, the second I’ve read a couple chapters. But both Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc” and David Kessler’s “The End of Overeating” are important books for the fans of food, or anyone curious about how restaurants (and other commercial establishments) go about making their customers want to eat.

Kessler uses a ton of repetition and observation to drive home his points. He talks to an unnamed industry insider, points out the constant use of double frying to embed even more fat into foods. The point of all this is that foods high in the “three points of the compass”, salt, fat, and sugar will tend to entice the appetite. This effect has been studied repeatedly in the lab.

Then by chance, he put a rat on a lab bench near some fallen Froot Loops, the high-calorie, high-sugar cereal. He was struck by how fast the animal picked up the cereal and started to eat it.

Sclafani turned that casual observation into a more formal experiment. After familiarizing test animals with the taste of Froot Loops, he let them loose in the open field. Rats prefer to stay in corners and won’t readily venture across a field to eat chow pellets, but when Froot Loops were available, they scurried over to them.

One useful thing that the Kessler book does is talk about thin people obsessing over food, even when they’re not inclined to eat. I’m finding that personally useful as I’m to a first approximation, hungry all the time, except after dinner. It’s only at dinner time I can get the volume of vegetables to feel “satisfied”. It is nice to know that I’m not alone.

Kessler’s thesis is easy enough to test. I’ve done it inadvertently a couple times. The tacos at Garcia’s left me ravenous. And if you try, oh, some bread and a teaspoon of olive oil, and then try enough green olives to match the fat in the oil, the shock of the salt and the taste of pimento will create more of a “taste sensation” in your mouth, and in my case, certainly more of an urge to eat or drink.

One of the nicer things about the holidays is all the home made food, such as this good gumbo, from my father’s current partner.

And Zapps, which I’ve known for their Cajun potato chips, now has a salsa.

Barking Rocks winery, which is owned by relatives of mine, had a nice article written about them via the Texan News Service. The article, written by Morgan Christensen, can be found here. Another interesting link, a tasting of Barking Rocks wines, can be found here. But perhaps more pleasing is this reaction, on the blog Jundogirl, to the article I wrote about Royal Tofu House. Royal Tofu is a mom and pop eatery whose owners really go the extra mile for their customers. Jundogirl happened to be their daughter. Also, many thanks to Gene Lee for mentioning Mirak Korean Restaurant. In my opinion, Mirak has been a little overlooked in the blogging world and I’m glad to see it catch up in the hands of Korean food experts.

I got some books on beer this Christmas, and perhaps the best of them is “The Brewmaster’s Table“, by Garrett Oliver. Garrett Oliver is the owner/brewmaster of Brooklyn Brewery, and this book attempts to educate people about the possibilities of good beer and how to match beer with food. Useful as a coffeetable book (though it’s small and fat) is Michael Jackson’s book “Michael Jackson’s Great Beer Guide“. It has picture and short blurbs about a host of beers. The books is alphabetized and an easy read. My brother found this book and went into “Hey, I drank this one!” mode for hours on end during the holidays.

I’ve become, in very short order, a big fan of Robb Walsh, because of the depth of research this writer uses to develop his stories. In the comments to my Fire of Brazil review, I gave two “must read” Robb Walsh links, and also about that time, ordered three books of his.

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The first is The Tex Mex Cookbook. As Robb Walsh points out, nobody knew the difference between Tejano food and Mexican food until the publication of the landmark The Cuisines of Mexico by Diana Kennedy. Diana did something worthwhile, which is to treat the food of the poor in Mexico with the same respect as the food of the rich.  She did, however, reflect the dislike Mexicans felt towards border food in her writing. As a consequence, she created a huge critical distaste for Tex-Mex (or New Mexican border cuisine or Mexicali) in places like New York.

Red headed step child or no, Tex-Mex is popular in Paris, France, where a number of Tex-Mex restaurants can be found. As Robb Walsh details, the movie Betty Blue is in part responsible for this, with its tequila and chili scenes. It created a demand for Tex-Mex that could not be met by traditional Mexican foods, which Parisians regarded as old fashioned. The last chapter of this cookbook is full of the Tex-Mex recipes of Paris.

The second cookbook by Robb Walsh is The Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook. This was interesting to glance at, because I’ve heard the refrain, “Texas is about barbecuing beef over mesquite” for at least a decade now.  As Robb Walsh points out, it isn’t anywhere near that simple. Mr. Walsh identifies, by my count, at least 6 different styles of barbecue in Texas, from techniques dating to prehistory and the Caddo Indians to the pork barbecue, sans sauce, that evolved in northeast Texas after the Civil War. In between he talks about the barbecue of Texas’s German and Czech immigrants, the barbacoa of the Tejano, the evolution of the open pit barbecues that became national spectacle in the presidency of LBJ. In between he talks etymology of the word barbecue (in side panels), and throws out dozens of interesting recipes for meats and sauces. He showed me some terms I’d never seen before. Though my father’s first grill was a 55 gallon drum cut open and set up by his own father, I had never heard one of these grills referred to as a “Texas hibachi” until now.

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The third book, “Are You Really Going To Eat That?“, seems a kind of Travel Channel-esque tour through the food world. I’ve looked at it the least and have the least to say about. It reminds me a little of Eat Buford Highway’s subtitle, and I wonder if this book and his subtitle are somehow related.

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The final book to mention is “Izakaya: The Japanese Pub Cookbook“. I have spoken about this cookbook before. I could review it, but Zack Davisson’s review is excellent, a must read if you’re interested in this kind of cookbook. I will say it has a nice history of the izakaya, which rather than being a single kind or model of restaurant, is something of a chameleon.

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